RALEIGH (WTVD) --It's been a trend for a while: voters moving away from traditional political parties and registering as unaffiliated. But over the past four years, North Carolina has seen a dramatic shift in that direction, with Democrats taking the biggest hit.
From Jan. 2012 to Jan. 2016, 94,797 fewer people registered as Democrats (down 3.5 percent), 8,900 more people registered as Republicans (up .5 percent), and a whopping 297,704 more people registered as Unaffiliated (19.5 percent).
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with institutions," said Meredith College Political Science professor David McLennan. "Congress, the president, governor, etc. Political parties fall into that category so people are unregistering as members of parties and going Unaffililated as a sort of vote of dissatisfaction."
But McLennan said that doesn't mean voting patterns will change significantly. Older voters may switch, he said, but that doesn't mean they'll stop voting with their traditional party."
What's more, where for years, more Unaffiliated voters would be good news for Republicans - McLennan says Unaffiliated votes tended to break roughly 60-40 for GOP candidates from 1984 to 2008. The Political Science professor says they've divided more evenly in recent elections.
As for the decline of Democrats specifically, McLennan says the political machine set up by President Obama has largely disappeared.
"They're not registering as many people as they did in 2008," McLennan said, "that was a high water mark. They had the Obama voter registration team, and also in 2012, so they don't have that aparatus."
McLennan says that could disadvantage Democratic candidates going into the 2016 election, but perhaps not as much as one might think. He says both major parties have work to do.
"They've got to repair their image. They've got to be a party for all people, not just for a select few on each side, the establishment people. You see on the Republican party, you've got Tea Party folks upset, they go to unaffiliated, even though they're very conservative. So they both have to expand their bases and be more constituent focused."
What does all this mean for 2016?
"It adds uncertainty to the election cycle," said McLennan. "When you have registered Democrats and registered Republicans, and very few Unaffiliateds, you know who to target. Now with Unaffiliateds, particularly newly registered Unaffiliateds, it makes targeting voters and the get out the vote campaign a little more difficult. Because you're not sure with unaffiliate voters. The parties have to work harder to see which of those Unaffiliated voters are really Republican voters and which are really Democratic voters."
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